Category Archives: Biography

Frederick the Great – Tim Blanning

“He thinks like a philosopher but behaves like a king.” – Rousseau, referring to Frederick the Great

Frederick the Great played music with Bach, corresponded with Voltaire, and took a strong but second rate power—Prussia—and gave it a seat at the top table. During the Seven Years War, he would manage to hold off an alliance of all three great powers of continental Europe (France, Russia, and Austria), defeating and being defeated in turn but maintaining his hold on the rich farmlands of Silesia that provided the wealth Prussia needed.

His achievements are perhaps not as outwardly impressive as Napoleon. But Frederick the Great took a group of territories and managed to unite and hold them against all comers, creating the foundation of the modern German state. During and after his reign, he was both hero-worshipped and denigrated. Perhaps most shockingly to his contemporaries, he was devoutly secular, espousing complete freedom of religion and in his private notes repeatedly mocking religion. He was also likely homosexual, though concrete evidence does not exist either way.

Perhaps his most defining trait, however, was decisiveness, and that trait lay at the heart of his many military successes as well as some of his failures. He dismissed (with Voltaire) German as fit only for peasants and horses, called Rousseau a lunatic, and criticized Shakespeare. He wrote a paper arguing kings should avoid war when possible, and invaded a neighbouring state three months later. He was a complicated monarch, and it takes a deft hand to write his biography.

Blanning’s greatest strength is perhaps is ability to relate the events and ideals of Frederick’s life to more universal ones, not shying from telling a story not just of Frederick, but of fathers and sons, royalty, and officialdom more generally. At those points, the book is excellent, reaching beyond military biography to the personal in his consideration of Frederick’s relationship with his father, for example.

Unfortunately the book can also at times be repetitious and somewhat disorganized. Reaching the end of Frederick’s empire-building by the middle of the book, it loses some of its flow: what interests historians is not always what interests readers, and unfortunately at points the book focuses too much on the former audience and not enough on the latter. Still, a worthy attempt to address what remains a complicated subject.

Disclosure: I read Frederick the Great as an advance reader copy. You can see more reviews here: Frederick the Great. It is released March 29th.

Memoirs – Brian Mulroney

“What would be said of a generation that sought the stars but permitted its lakes and streams to languish and die?” – Mulroney

Mulroney was the second-ever Conservative Canadian Prime Minister to be re-elected for a second term (the first was John A, Canada’s first PM). He was also deeply unpopular at several points during his time in office, and remains very controversial. He did, however, orchestrate a number of policies with lasting impact: the Free Trade Agreement with the US, introducing the GST, fighting South African Apartheid, encouraging Quebec to join La Francophonie, moderating spending after the large increase in national debt from Pierre Trudeau, and signing an acid rain agreement with the US.

His memoirs are not a post-politics, statesman’s view of his time in office, so if you’re looking for objectivity look elsewhere. He clearly still has strong feelings on some of the events that occurred, particularly what he sees as a betrayal by Pierre Trudeau when Trudeau violently opposed Mulroney’s attempt to get Quebec to agree to the Canadian constitution at Meech Lake – Trudeau brought in the Canadian constitution in 1982 without the approval of Quebec, and Mulroney believed that without a deal that brought Quebec in from the cold, separatism was a real threat. Whether that’s true or not remains disputed, and Trudeau argued that Mulroney was simply pandering to Quebec.

At some points it feels like he’s trying to rewrite history by putting his own views forward. He is also charmingly frank on some points, however, and comes across as a phenomenally gifted negotiator and master of interpersonal relations. Almost all his major successes were about negotiation, from international treaties and fighting apartheid in South Africa, to negotiating constitutional agreements with unanimous support from the provinces, something even Pierre Trudeau couldn’t manage. His relationships with others served Canada well at a number of junctures, including when the UK attempted to stop the expansion of the G-5 to include Canada, an attempt that almost succeeded until Reagan, who got along famously with Mulroney, stood up and refused to be part of a club that didn’t have Canada as a member. I would guess that’s why he is still angry about Trudeau: he took a perceived betrayal hard.

Perhaps his most enduring legacy, interestingly, has been the environment. In 2006 he was honoured as the Greenest PM in history: beyond signing the acid rain treaty, he created eight new national parks and brought in the environmental protection act, and remains vocal about global warming. Quite a contrast to more modern Conservative party positions.

Napoleon Quotes (Napoleon the Great)

Having reviewed Napoleon the Great earlier this week (here), I thought I’d share some Napoleon quotes, drawn from his letters.

“read and re-read the campaigns of Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Julius Caesar, Gustavus Adolfus, Prince Eugene and Frederick the Great. This is the only way to become a great captain.”

“‘Do you know how I managed?’ Napoleon later recalled of this period of his life. ‘By never entering a café or going into society; by eating dry bread, and brushing my own clothes so that they might last the longer. I lived like a bear, in a little room, with books for my only friends … These were the joys and debaucheries of my youth.’”

“Had the French been more moderate and not put Louis to death, all Europe would have been revolutionized: the war saved England.”

“If you make war, wage it with energy and severity; it is the only means of making it shorter and consequently less deplorable for mankind.”

“Nothing is lost while courage remains.”

“The barbarous custom of having men beaten who are suspected of having important secrets to reveal must be abolished…Torture produces nothing worthwhile. The poor wretches say anything that comes into their mind that the interrogator wishes to hear.”

“Law must do nothing but impose a general principle. It would be vain if one were to try to foresee every possible situation; experience would prove that much has been omitted.”

“If you want to dine well, dine with Cambacérès; if you want to dine badly, dine with Lebrun; if you want to dine quickly, dine with me.” (He would generally spend less than ten minutes at table)

Napoleon the Great – Andrew Roberts

“Vaunting ambition can be a terrible thing, but if allied to great ability – a protean energy, grand purpose, the gift of oratory, near-perfect recall, superb timing, inspiring leadership – it can bring about extraordinary outcomes.”

Since 2004, the Fondation Napoléon has been editing and publishing Napoleon’s 33,000 extant letters, many of which had not been previously published. A man’s whose life has been picked over in extraordinary detail–a fifteen page treatise has been written about the time he stopped for a cup of coffee at a blacksmith’s house on July 19th, 1804–has suddenly been further illuminated, and in his own words. Napoleon is not an easy subject, often intentionally trying to shape the impression he left for the future, but his words still provide an invaluable source of insight. Roberts does an excellent job using those letters to create a compelling and fascinating biography.

Roberts feels Napoleon has been the target of a rewriting of history by the victors, in this case the English. His goal is to show why the epithet ‘the Great’ is well-deserved, and to a large extent he succeeds. Love him or not, Napoleon had quite the CV: came to power only six years after entering the country as a penniless refugee; defeated six different Austrian armies before his 28th birthday; represented the ideals of progress, meritocracy, and a rational future to much of Europe; acted as a law-giver, civil engineer, and nation-builder for France; and inspired such loyalty in his people that more volunteered to accompany him to exile than could be accommodated. Today, he is often castigated as a warmonger, but in several cases, it was the British who provoked war with him. The British also used equally ruthless tactics, particularly Wellington’s scorched earth tactics in Portugal.

Napoleon shaped the history of Europe and probably of the world itself, and if he had many failings, he was at least often aware of them. Roberts argues that his greatest may have been his love and trust in family: promoting his siblings to king and queens of Europe, they almost always let him down or failed him. In Russia, in contrast, Roberts argues that Napoleon suffered less from hubris than usually believed: Napoleon expected a brief border war, and failed to anticipate the Russian retreat into their heartland. It was a mistake, a disastrous one, but not initially overconfidence: he never planned to fight in Russia itself.

Napoleon is a fascinating guy, the good with the bad, and if this biography is a little more focused on the good than the bad, that is perhaps understandable. It skims over a few things, such as his marriage to Josephine, but by and large does a good job adding nuance to his character, often by drawing on his own words. The one question that isn’t answered is the world he visualized if he had succeeded. Did he truly believe France could control all of Europe, including Britain? It could never have controlled Russia. This endgame is something he does not describe in letters, and so we are left to wonder.

Elon Musk – Ashlee Vance

“Where Mark Zuckerberg wants to help you share baby photos, Musk wants to…well…save the human race from self-imposed or accidental annihilation.”

Anyone who has Tony Stark (of Iron Man fame) based on them has a pretty good story to tell. The world first met Elon Musk when a South Africa trade magazine published the source code to a video game he had written. It was only 167 lines of code, but then that is more than most 12 year olds manage. Since then, he has cut up logs in Vancouver, dropped out of a PhD program, binged on video games for days, told a venture capitalist that he was like a samurai because he would rather commit seppuku than fail, achieved what many thought was impossible in three different sectors – the internet with PayPal, space with SpaceX, and electric cars with Tesla – and is trying for a fourth.

He’s also a brutal boss, and sometimes seems to take credit for the work of others or shape narratives to his own advantage, not always truthfully. For that reason, he can be a controversial figure, despite his achievements. One of the first journalists to get full access, Vance aims to show the good with the bad: attempts to capture as much of the character and achievements of Musk as possible.

The biography is excellent: well written, insightful, and interesting. Despite his flaws, Musk comes across as an impressive figure: not perfect, but someone committed to serving humanity, with a towering intellect, tremendous drive, and a penchant for taking enormous risks and making them work through effort and focus.

My one complaint is something I’m not sure could be avoided, at least anytime soon. The fact that Elon Musk is not yet dead – indeed, is still middle-aged – means much of the final third of the book is based on speculation on what he will do, not what he has done. For the same reason the Ancient Greeks would judge no one happy until they were dead, it is still too soon to tell how some of Musk’s ventures will play out. Still, based only on what he has already done, he has played a major role in humanity’s development for generations to come. An amazing achievement, and one I hope others emulate.